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[379] A Gate at the Stairs – Lorrie Moore

” Life was unendurable, and yet everywhere it was endured. ” (VI 303)

A Gate at the Stairs sets in a small town in the midwest, where Tessie Keltjin comes to attend college. The culture shock that confronts the 20-year-old country farm girl, who has neither had Chinese food nor flown in an airplane, is far more close-to-home than the recent 9/11 attack. Realizes that donating plasma does not resolve her financial strait, she takes up childcare for a mysterious but glamorous family that has recently adopted a part African American child. She finds herself drawn into a world that, having grown up in a farm, she has never known.

This whole town is racially inexperienced and so there is racism on the ground floor of everything. (IV 159)

. . . what did I know about bringing up an African-American child in this world? (Nothing.) To the white man I was a whoring girl messing around with anyone. This was all said in looks, so the truth could not be uttered, but I saw again and again what it was simply to walk into a store for a doughnut and have a wordless racial experience. (IV 167-8)

The novel proceeds uneventfully, but with a continuous pang. Through the tedious procedure of adopting a child—the endless paperwork, the dealing with foster families, the religious prerequisite, Moore explores the limitations and insufficiency of love, and the loneliness that haunts the most doting of families. That the child is partly colored, and the parents are white, further complicate the matter. But the mystery behind the motive of adoption, the real cause of such limitations—Moore leaves it undone and abandons to nothingness.

Even what appears to be lyric force is sporadic, showing up in clumps of authorial intrusion, not necessarily driving the book forward. The most frustrating, and Moore seems to delight in indulging in as if she is aware of the economy of substance, is to reinforce a trivial idea by repetition:

There were subtlties of neutral hue I’d never encountered before: Pebble, Pecan, Portabella, Peanut, Platinum, Porcelain, Pigeon, Parmesan, Pavement, Parchment, Pearl, and, ah, Potato. There were the brighter colors too. One could recite them all like a jump-rope ehyme. Paprika. Pinot, Persimmon! Pimento! Pomegranate, Pine! Poplar, Pistachio, Peacock, Petal Pink, Polar Peach, Pumpkin, Pepper, Plum, Pineapple. Periwrinkle, Perdot, Primrose, Palm, Pea, Poppy, Puce. My new address was in a shade called Oyster, which was a lot like Fig Gray, I noticed, and which I called Stick, since it was the color of a stick. (IV 164)

Frustrating and tiresome. She would go off a whole page that my mind would scream: enough, I got the point—move on. Then on another occasion, another rhyme takes up a page:

We started making up songs that had no choruses, just one cursed, merciless verse after verse, complaint like a flipping knife wandering around, debating, resting no place at all. In line after line, we tried to compose meaningful phrases with twinned endings: sinister to rhyme with minister, cubic with pubic, flatbread with flatbed, bearable reason with terrible treason, lucky with Kentucky—well, the songs angrily made no sense. . . . (V 221)

I can’t help asking: what is she talking about? These inner dialog is going insanely off the tangent. Insomuch as Moore etches these word play that a ton of media reviews praise as lyric force and beauty, she would abruptly leave the bundle of serious issues untied. What is becoming of the adopted child when the husband is not sold out on signing the papers? What happens to Tassie’s transient romance with that Brazilian who is, after all, from New Jersey? What happens to the marriage of Sarah and Edward, who revealed the dark secret of their past? The book always generates the feeling that something worth exploring and expounding, that which will become the meat of the story, is left unsaid. The whole post-9/11 psyche is nebulous and tacked-on. Racism could have been a promising theme but it is loosely represented in random dialogs of a support group for parents with biracial kids. It’s unfortunate that Moore chooses to show off with her wordsmith at the expense of the story’s cohesion.

322 pp. E-book for iPad. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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9 Responses

  1. But did you like it, Matt? Ha!

    I never had the inclination to pick this one up. Something about it just put me off. Others have had more favorable reviews but from what you shared, I’d go mad reading this one. That, I know.

    • I feel I have to give good and valid reasons for the “Toss” rating. The review, which I wrote on the train right after I finished the iPad e-book, therefore, turns out to be longer than I anticipated. I couldn’t stand her style. So shocking that NY Times, Washington Post, Oprah…all rave about this one.

  2. Completely agree with you on this one, Matt – and I am a huge, huge Lorrie Moore fan. This one just disappointed me so very much.

  3. I thought it was me! I totally agree – TOSS. (so dissappinting)

  4. I read this one such a long time ago that I can’t respond in detail to the frustrating experience you’ve had with it, but I was quite impressed by it myself. I haven’t read the reviews you’ve mentioned, but here’s what saved it from my personal Toss pile.

    The book it brought to mind for me, at the time, was Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, the style of which really put off some readers but the style was just perfect for the narrator and what she was trying to make sense of. (Not to say that that makes it more enjoyable being in her self-absorbed narrow little wordy nerdy world.)

    I felt that Moore achieved that with Tassie’s character in a similar way, that the novel’s style reflected her struggle to craft an identity in times that suddenly seemed so much more precarious than she’d expected (personally and politically).

    Anyway, I’m glad you made your review long enough to explain the rating: gushing takes fewer words!

  5. Nothing about this book really appeals to me. I found my eyes glazing over at the 3 paragraphs you quoted….thanks for reading this one for us!!!

  6. I checked this book out from the library on multiple occasions and never got around to reading it. After reading your review I feel lucky that I never read it!

  7. I loved the writing. I really did. The plot fell slightly flat though, and it was a bit… umm… “can you please streamline this a bit? please?” That said, I would read more of Moore’s works, simply because I do (as I’ve already said) love her writing, and the way the dialogue flows.

  8. What a bummer. I was really excited for this one, but based on your review and the opinion of most of the commenters, I am starting to regret buying this one. At least I only spent $1!

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